By Jacki Lyden
Friday, Aug. 11, 2000
"Call me Ishmael," I said to my friend Jahanshah, "and I'll call you Queequeg." We had just entered one of my favorite holes-in-the-wall in Washington, the Moby Dick House of Kabob. Why the name Moby Dick? Avast, seafarer, I'll keep you in suspense for a moment on that one. Let's just say that when an Iranian restaurateur started Washington's Moby Dick chain in 1989, he was building on one of the legends of Tehran, not Herman Melville's tale of the whale.
The Iranian exodus to America since the revolution of 1979 has resulted in a wealth of Persian businesses in the D.C. area, and Moby Dick is one of the many success stories. After all, catering to Persian tastes has a market far beyond Iranians. All kinds of Middle Easterners -- often Israelis and Turks -- turn up at Moby Dick, and there's an ample patronage as well.
There are six Moby Dicks, from Gaithersburg to Fairfax, but there is no place like the classic Georgetown joint, tucked just above the canal on 31st Street. Its sign is garishly funky, its fluorescent lights could make you think you were stuck in an old phone booth, and the place isn't a great deal bigger than that. Crammed into Moby Dick are maybe three tables, a dozen chairs and a tiny counter. Two or three guys stand behind the cash register, taking orders and making lavash bread in the traditional way: whomping a circle of dough onto the interior of a heated bread oven, and then taking it out with a paddle. Weekends Moby Dick stays open till 4 in the morning, and everyone from surgeons to taxi drivers comes in for a quick kebab, which can be eaten in -- often standing, or sitting by the canal -- or taken home.
Jahanshah, the Iranian-born editor of an online English-language magazine called the Iranian, has definite expertise in kebab matters. And even though I hail from Wisconsin, I have been to countless kebab joints in Iran myself, so I would say I am no slouch, either. "Kubideh or chenjeh?" he asked. Ground sirloin or marinated tenderloin chunks? He ordered seer torshi as an accompaniment, which I had never been offered. This little dish is garlic buds marinated in vinegar, and the longer they are marinated, the more delicious they become. Seer torshi is probably only asked for by the cognoscenti -- meaning Iranians -- and I highly recommend it with kebabs.
Kebabs in Iran are usually minced lamb or beef, with an egg on top of the rice underneath them. I have been to Persian cooking classes at Bethesda's Academie de Cuisine, where Najmieh Batmanglij, an Iranian chef who lives in Georgetown, has made kebabs, and, believe me, shaping the ground stuff around a skewer would try the patience of a saint. Yet kebabs are prepared everywhere in Iran, for the simple reason that the complicated stews of Persian cuisine are even more labor-intensive. That, and the fact that the Iranian penchant for kebabs seems equal to the American desire for burgers and fries.
The cooks at the Georgetown Moby Dick serve about 2,000 kebabs a week, made each day at a central location in Crystal City. Prices range from five bucks for ground sirloin to $8 or $10 for a kebab combination. Besides the ground sirloin or chunks of tenderloin, one might also order a lamb kebab called barreh -- made with halal lamb, by the way, which has been butchered according to Muslim dietary laws -- or chicken (called joojeh) and even, sometimes, fish. There are also souvlakis -- Greek-style open-faced sandwiches -- and vegetarian dishes. But those are not authentically Persian.
For me, the thing that makes Moby Dick truly Persian -- besides the fact that each dish is served with excellent rice -- is the array of side dishes that can be ordered separately. Jahanshah ordered them for us: Sabzi was a small plate of watercress, parsley, onion, radish and feta cheese; translated literally, sabzi means greens, and a combination of greens and cheese starts almost every Persian meal. Then there was a dish of yogurt mixed with shallots; a shirazi salad of chopped tomato and onion; and kashk-o bademjan, a mixture of ground sauteed eggplant, garlic, grilled onion and boiled yogurt. This dish is one of my favorite Persian dips, though, sadly, I must report that at Moby Dick it doesn't measure up to the other side dishes. Perhaps it just doesn't lend itself to the exigencies of fast food; either that, or it has been made blander for the American market. The lavash tastes similarly Americanized: It has had a lot of white flour added to it, and though it may puff up just like the bread does in Iran, mysteriously adhering to the sides of the bread oven, it is doughy and floury, to my taste.
Another truly Persian offering is the homemade or bottled doogh. Ah, I love this stuff! A yogurt-and-seltzer drink, it is, to me, the perfect complement to Persian food, healthy and tasty. My American friend Kyle came with me another night, though, and she left her doogh alone. She is an adventurous diner, but even she called doogh "an acquired taste."
One of the wonderful things about Moby Dick is that given the customers' casual attire, you often have no idea what anyone's day job might be: chauffeur, or the chauffeured. While waiting for my meal one night -- not more than 15 minutes -- I talked to a guy who sells cars, two doctors, a consultant for the World Bank and a teacher.
Kebabs feed many different hungers. Iranian-born Maryam Jabari had just done a 40-hour shift -- she's a resident at George Washington University Hospital -- and still had on her green doctor's fatigues. And fatigue was the right word for her. "It's comfort food," she said groggily. "It's good, and it's fresh, and it's fast." Then she was gone. The World Bank consultant, who didn't want to give his full name, comes from a small town in northeastern Mexico. He said the food at Moby Dick reminded him of asado de pollo, a Mexican chicken-and-rice dish, with "tortilla bread, and there's even hot sauce. I've told my family the food is similar, but they think I'm crazy."
The second doctor, Arora Sabodh, a vascular surgeon, explained, "I saw a tiny hole in the wall with a line outside it, like something out of the Soviet Union. I just got in line, because I knew it had to be good. And it is."
Yes, Jahanshah did eventually tell me the story behind the restaurant's name. In the shah's time, one of the biggest kebab joints in Tehran, right near the American Embassy, was called Moby Dick, apparently because the owner just really liked the book. So for Iranians, the name Moby Dick is a little in-joke.
Then Jahanshah sprinkled some sumac, a powdered condiment kept in containers on the table, over his kebab. "Nush-e jan!" he said. Good eating!
Guest columnist Jacki Lyden is a host of National Public Radio's "Weekend All Things Considered."